Thursday, May 24, 2018

Day Trip to Teotihuacan: Pyramids to Libraries

I awoke on day 3 in Mexico City early and with a plan. Although there was still so much in the city I wanted to see, I decided to take a day trip to Teotihuacan and the pyramids. My parents had visited there in the early '70s and I remember seeing polaroids of them standing on the avenue of the dead. It always looked so dusty and exotic. I had to go.

My hostel offered to arrange a tour, which was ok price-wise and would have arranged all transportation, which sounded kind of appealing, but it was also going to a bunch of other sites I wasn't interested in, so I decided to go by public transportation. I'm glad I did. It was so easy and cheap and I was able to spend as much time as I wanted.

Here's what I did:
I took the metro to Terminal Central del Norte aka Autobuses del Norte on the yellow line (as previously mentioned, the metro system is great). I crossed the street and went to the bus station. It is very big and you will see it right away. Going inside, I turned left and walked to the end of the hall, to gate 8, the 2nd to last service counter where Autobuses Teotihuacan was selling tickets. The lady at the counter spoke English and I bought a round trip ticket to "Los Pyramides". It is very cheap - about  $6.50 CDN round trip. From there, around the corner is the row where the buses pull up. It is not obvious which exactly which bus stall is which, but the lady had told me which number it was and so I knew it was one of two buses. I just asked people and made sure I was in the right queue and sat behind some local people who were also going to the pyramids so I could just get off when they did. The seats were not assigned. One weird thing was that both going there and coming back, the police got on the bus and took pictures of everyone on the bus. No one was able to tell me why.

The bus was comfortable and took about one hour. As we approached the pyramids the sky was dotted with hot air balloons. I bought a ticket at the gate and entered. It is enormous, spread out. I realized right away that I was glad to not be on a tour, which usually only stay for an hour. There was a lot of walking to be done.

Briefly, Teotihuacan was a city created about 100BC by some unknown people. The names given to the site came from the Aztecs, who came later. The city lasted until about the 7th or 8th century, but it seems that a lot of it was destroyed around 550AD. There are lots of theories about who built it and why it was abandoned, but you'll have to look elsewhere for that. What I am here to tell you is that it is old and it is awesome.

I met a girl from Manilla and we walked together to the first small pyramid. You couldn't climb up this particular one, but there were still lots of stairs to get close to it, which was worthwhile to see the well-preserved carvings.  From there we walked down the Avenue of the Dead where I attempted to recreate my parents' polaroid.

From there, we walked to the Pyramid of the Sun. This is the big one. The third largest in the world. Climbing it seems mandatory. I wasn't thrilled about this. It is a lot of stairs. Steep ones. But it was actually fine and I stopped for a rest half way up and chatted with a couple from Toronto. I lost my companion from Manila early on, as she needed to keep a slower pace. At the top, I had a sense of satisfaction and great views of the site and the Pyramid of the Moon. Totally worth the climb.

I walked to the Pyramid of the Moon. It was getting hotter and I was pretty tired from the initial climbs, but I didn't come all this way to NOT climb the Pyramid of the Moon, so up I went. The Moon Pyramid is smaller, but was a harder climb because it was the second one. The views from there are also great.
After descending, I wandered around a bit more, but I was basically done. It was 11am. I was hot, sweaty, and slightly annoyed that there was nary an ice cream vendor in sight. I walked out of the nearest gate (the one closest to the Pyramid of the Moon) and crossed the street and within 5 minutes a bus pulled up, headed back to Mexico City. Apparently they come very frequently. Easy. I slept on the way back.

Because my trip to the Pyramids was just a morning affair, upon arriving back in the City I decided to explore some new areas. I took the metro to Chilpancingo and walked to Parque Mexico, which is a beautiful oasis. Green and flowery with people biking, running, and strolling. There are fountains and popcorn vendors. Just a lovely escape on a hot day.
From there I wandered the Condesa area and then up to the Zona Rosa area. These are really lovely areas with tree lined streets, fancier houses, and lots of inviting pubs and restaurants. I stopped for a bite to eat and then stumbled upon a crafts market, where I walked the aisles before walking to the Roma area. Everywhere I went, I kept finding arts and crafts markets. Not traditional Mexican souvenirs, but more like the sort of stuff you would see at a crafts market in Vancouver or Portland but with more tacos and tequila. There were bands playing and more charming parks with public art.

It was a great area and I could have spent more time, but the day was wearing on and I had a cigar lounge to find.  I walked back towards the Parq Mexico and right by there is a building of fancy food stalls, but on the third floor is the most inviting cigar lounge, Cigar Point.
I settled in there for about an hour and half, enjoying a couple of cubans from their humidor, after which I was energized for the walk and train back to the historic centre.  I spent the evening trying to stay awake. I went out for a walk to get something to eat and decided to have a couple of bean tacos that a man was selling from a bucket on the street. It was about 40 cents for two of them. Not great, but not bad. I think it was these tacos that led to what was about 12 hours of intense food poisoning. Who would have thought tacos from a bucket would be a bad idea?

This kind of killed off my plans for the next day. I wasn't feeling great, between my stomach troubles and my legs, which had seized up following all of my pyramid climbing the previous day. I had to leave for the airport at noon, but I took a brief trip by the metro to Biblioteca Vasconcelos, this massive library built in 2006. It has this interesting, open concept that makes the books look like they are floating. It is quite stunning and has interesting features like a whale skeleton art installation and outdoor patio reading rooms. It is gorgeous. I did get in trouble though for taking pictures. Weirdly, photos taken on a phone are fine, but camera photos are not. I explained that I did not have a phone, only my super cheap Canon cybershot (so it's not like I'm taking professional pictures), but the guard said no and proceeded to keep an eye on me.

The library is in kind of a lousy area but is totally worth a visit. It is a few steps from the Buena Vista metro stop on the grey line.

After that I had just enough time to pack up my stuff and take the metro to the airport. A little less than four days in Mexico City was amazing. I was able to see so much, but I am definitely going back. There is more to see, but I'll skip the bucket tacos next time.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Down Mexico Way: Mexico City exploration

Saturday morning, I awoke with the determination to get a lot of exploring done. It was my first full day (one of two) in Mexico City. After breakfast at the hostel, i set out. I started at the Zócalo square with the Catedral Metropolitana and from there i more or less followed a walking route through the central historico and into the Alameda area. 
I won't list every sight I saw, but I took in the big ones - several cathedrals, markets, parks, and pedestrian streets of note. It was a great day for wandering. Hot and sunny but not humid, and every turn revealed something worthy of my attention. The harmonium players provided a soundtrack to the touristy areas, tempting food carts, eateries, and cantinas, people just going about their days.
There were certainly very modern areas that looked like any big city and then, turn a corner, and it became more colourful and what I imagined as Mexico revealed itself. At no point did any area feel unsafe.

I did go to the Palacio de Belles Artes, which is a gorgeous building on edge of a lovely park. I saw huge Diego Rivera murals, and various other permanent collection items, as well as a great exhibit of modern, weird art. I didn't linger, but i was glad i visited. 
I went to this one food market (I think it was Gastrónomica San Juan) where they had the usual fruit and cheese but also a gruesome collection of wild game - allegedly everything from lion to capybara, with creatures laid out, torsos like cornucopias of horror. I took a bunch of pictures, but the came out blurry; i was self conscious about taking photos an was attracting too much attention as the lone "gringa". 

I wandered the near endless aisles of the Centro de Artesanias, looking at all the colourful things I didn't want but liked to look at. People were certainly interested in selling, but in a very casual way that made browsing pleasant, not stressful. I did get a break out my Spanish haggling phrases, which is some of my best Spanish. I had lunch of tortilla chips, beans, and salad with avocado. Not a lot of veg options, but I was happy for the food and the rest.
Rounding back to the Zócalo, i walked down Regina street, which is a great pedestrian street lined with bars and restaurants and some of the best street art around. It is like a gallery...and i may have found inspiration for a new tattoo. 
I didn't want a bar, but found a quieter restaurant, sat outside and ordered a pizza. Too late i discovered that they did not allow smoking on the patio. (Grumble.) But i had a fine time people watching and having my dinner...until a light rain turned into a tropical style downpour, which turned into so much hail it looked like snow. I waited until it died down and then made a dash for it. The rain got worse again and turned into thunder and lightning, which left me hostel bound until almost midnight, at which time I went for another late walk and cigar.

There are police everywhere here, at least in the historic centre. There are frequently clusters of them, with riot gear at hand, sometimes 20 of them, standing around a particular corner before they hop in the back of a pickup truck and move locations. I guess it adds an air of security, but then, I'm not sure if the police are to be trusted. Either way, they spend most of their time on their phones, texting and surfing the internet, as best I could tell.

Another random observation: there are so many sweets shops here selling churros, ice cream, candy, etc. Like...a lot. Plus lots of garbage fast food joints. On the plus side, there are lots of bike lanes and juice shops. I also found that for a city of 20+ million people, there are a lot of slow walkers, not the satisfying hustle I expect from a big city. If there's one thing I can't tolerate it's a slow walker. That is my only complaint though. On the whole I found the city I saw to be entirely delightful. 

Postscript: my impatience with the slow walkers came back to haunt me two days later when I was suffering from food poisoning and wickedly sore legs from excessive stair climbing at the pyramids. I was left walking like Frankenstein, slowly and with self loathing.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

South of the Border: Luche Libres in Mexico City

I ended up with a four day long weekend and I was determined to go somewhere, but none of the near-to-Vancouver destinations appealed, so I looked for cheap flights to destinations that I could manage in a not-quite four day trip.  And here I am en route to Mexico City.

I booked my ticket with about a week's lead time so I didn't do my usual months of study and preparation. I feel underprepared, but it's kind of exciting. I realized, as I hurriedly scanned my newly purchased Lonely Płanet that I don't actually know very much about Mexico. Just pop-culture stuff: Chupacabra. The Three Amigos. Frida Khalo & Diego Rivera. The Tijuana Brass. A handful of writers...not much about the history or politics, aside from the fact that there were Aztecs and Mayans, but I don't know much about them. I went to Tijuana with my mother and sister when I was 11 and that was awesome. It was the first different place I went. I remember donkeys, little girls selling chicklets, and the market where I was first introduced to the concept of bargaining - the price isn't really the price? Young mind blown. I bought a skinny leather necktie. (It was the '80s.) And I've never been back. Until now.

You won't find me at a beach or resort, but Mexico City looked like it would satisfy my travel needs. A big city with lots to explore, culture, history, inexpensive everything, and maybe a little dangerous? Great. (Actually, I think the rumours of danger are overblown, a least in comparison to other cities I've been, but who knows? As I write this preamble, I am still on the plane from Vancouver.)

[several hours later]

I arrived at my hostel, the Casa San Ildefonso, in the centre historico, by metro. The metro system here is great. It's not fancy, but it's comprehensive, fast, and cheap - a ride anywhere is 5 pesos, or about 30 cents. The thing i like best about it is that each station has its own logo. Apparently, when it was built the literacy rate was low so they gave the stations names and pictures. From the airport to my hostel this was my route in pictures: kangaroo, squirrel, water twins, water pipe, aloe, church tower, pyramid, skyscraper, shoulders man, handsome man, church, decapitated Chaplin, eagle.
I walked across the Zocalo square, flanked by impressive buildings and easily found my lodgings. Simple, pleasant, and very cheap.

I went for a walk and found the Los Vegetarianos restaurant where i finally tried mole sauce. Weird and gross at first, but then i decided i loved it.

I got in at about 5:00 and part of me just wanted to hang out, but Friday night was my only chance to take in a uniquely Mexican event: lucha libres. (Mexican wrestling) I hopped the metro to the Arena Mexico. The area was a bit rough looking, but felt totally safe. The streets were lined with food vendors, cooking up savoury snacks, and vendors selling wrestling masks. Divey bars spilled cervesa holding patrons and live rock music onto the street. I wished i had gotten there earlier to explore, but i had a show to see. 

I bought a ticket, mid range, for about $13 cad and entered a big stadium filled with people and noise and roving snack and beer sellers. The show was...crazy. Lights and smoke machines. Scantily clad, curvy girls danced to rock music as each wrestler was announced to cheers. The costumes were elaborate. Wings, capes, silver boots, spandex pants with stars and skulls, and teeny speedos.
The idea is this, there are good guys (Technicós) and bad guys (Rudos) and they fight one on one or in groups. It is all choreographed but is quite impressive. They are like gymnasts or acrobats. The crowd goes crazy cheering and booing and yelling rude chants. Kind of like a bizarre pantomime.

I stayed for about and hour and a half, but left before it was over. I got the idea and it was quite late. I took the metro back. It was packed. It took me three tries to get on and we were crammed in. It wasn't bad though; i was easily the tallest person in my end of the car and people were polite. They do have cars for women and children which are less full (and smell better). 

Back in my 'hood, i went for a walk around midnight (still feeling safe) and had a cigar. It was a great first day, even if it was only about 8 hours.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Liechtenstein

On my last full day in Zürich, I decided to go to Liechtenstein. Why? Because it is there. A friend of mine, a real opinionated smarty pants, had scoffed at my plan to go to Vaduz, Liechtenstein. He had been there, maybe 10 or 20 years prior, and said "Don't waste your time. you'll regret it. There's NOTHING there." Of course, I didn't care if there was anything there worth seeing or not; I had to go. It is a new country, a mere train ride away. I couldn't resist. 

To get from Zürich to Vaduz (capital city), Liechtenstein, you take a train and a bus. I'll explain briefly, as it wasn't totally obvious. At the man train station, on the day of (or before if you're nervous) book a roundtrip ticket from Zürich HB to Vaduz, Post. You can also buy it from an agent in the kiosk. The train will take you to Sargans, just on the Swiss side of the border, and from there you take a bus. It is about 1 hour to Sargans and the scenery is stunning. At the station in Sargans, the bus loop will be obvious. Take bus 11 to Vaduz, Post. The trip will be about 30 minutes and all of the stops are listed on a monitor on the bus. It could not be easier.
The journey was terrific. The scenery was magnificent. Past a shining lake and velvety green farms and gentle hills, tiny villages with castles or churches perched just above them on the highest hill, and, increasingly, snowy mountain ranges. I took pictures, as best I could, through the train window. 
In Vaduz, the bus stops just steps from the man drag, which is really all there is to see. It's not much, but perfectly adequate for an afternoon. There is a church, a few different museums, cafes and restaurants, and an occupied castle looming above. Liechtenstein is some kind of "democratic monarchy", which I think is another way of saying oxymoron.
I only visited one museum, the modern art museum, which i recommend, if you like that sort of thing. I took my pictures, slowly ate a raspberry tart and smoked a cigar in the warm spring sun (trying to protect my eyes from the group of men in spandex cycling attire at the table next to me. Blech.), and paid €3 to have my passport stamped at the info booth.
A few hours and I was satisfied.  I think if one was keen to experience more of Liechtenstein, it might be nice to go to some other towns that look a bit more quaint,  but my time was running short, and I had accomplished what I set out to do. It was a lovely day. (In your face, know-it-all friend.)
Back to Zürich, I walked around more, for no particular reason, except that the weather was perfect, and all of these little neighborhood joints started to open up and they all looked so appealing. I stopped and had a bowl of soup at one, and a glass of wine and a cigar at another. I finished the evening on a pedestrian street near my air bnb, outside of an Italian restaurant which was closed, but had left their outdoor tables and chairs out. I had a cigar and watched local residents go about their Sunday evening business.
It was a great end to my trip.

This morning I awoke and had breakfast with my airbnb hosts, who insisted on making me breakfast: muesli with apples and yogurt, tiny cups of strong coffee and squares of dark chocolate. 

And then I was off to the airport. 

Currently flying to Vancouver. The woman ahead of me has reclined her seat all the way and keeps stretching her fat arms over her head and reaching back and grabbing the top of the back of her chair, blocking my tv. If she keeps this up, I may lick her hand.

It has been a great trip: Tunisia, with a dash of Switzerland, and a pinch of France and Liechtenstein. Thoroughly satisfying. Not happy to be going home. Never happy to be going home, but at least I get to plan a new trip.

Forced Relaxation in Tunis & Zürich

Nothing much happens in this post, but sometimes that is how it goes.

I returned to Tunis late and awoke the next morning with the beginning of a cold. Annoying, but inevitable when traveling, I suppose. The only good things were that I really didn't have anything I needed to do in Tunis and I was staying at a fancy hotel (as has become my way; finish the trip somewhere slightly posh). I was staying at the Hotel Royal Victoria, right at the entrance to the medina, with a view of the square form my private balcony. I had a tv and my own bathroom and hot water. Luxury! 
In the morning I gorged myself on their breakfast buffet (cold be dammed, I'm not missing out on a free breakfast).

And so, it being my last day, I decided to do some shopping. I find I am less and less inclined to buy things for myself. I have nowhere to keep them and even though that [insert exotic item] might look tempting when in the souk, when I get home, the gloss is gone and I realize that the item doesn't fit with my real life. But I did haggle my way through the market and pick up a few items to be gifted. It was fun, but my cold was getting worse and my energy wasn't great.
Despite that, I was determined to get a good walk in, so I picked a destination - the belvedere park - it was quite a way out of the centre but a good walk through streets away from the tourist-geared cafes and shops. It just felt like a regular city.

Belvedere park is a lovely green area with a zoo, as it turned out. I'm opposed to zoos generally and felt a bit conflicted about whether or not to go, but ultimately I did. I can't say that part of me isn't interested in seeing the animals, but i would rather it be under different circumstances. These were animals, exotic and otherwise, in too small cages, swimming in circles, or lying listlessly. That paints maybe too bleak a picture, but it is true. I enjoyed myself anyway.
(That picture of the guy and crocodile amused me, like why would anyone need a warning not to play catch with crocodiles?)

I walked back to my hotel, went into the medina for dinner and shisha, and spent the rest of the evening watching movies on tv in my room.

I woke up at 3:30am as I had an early flight, i slept for maybe an hour, owing to a fever, crushing headache, and an inability to breathe through my nose. I flew to Zurich and walked to my airbnb lodging, not far from the main train station, between there and Kreis 5. A charming apartment called home by a boyfriend-girlfriend architect couple from eastern Europe. 

I felt like garbage, but it was a gorgeous spring day, so i walked to and around Kreis 5,  a sort of former warehouse type district now populated by art galleries, eateries catering to foodies, and, on the day that I was there, an urban bicycle festival and a neighbourhood yard sale. The area is quite nice. In fact, Zurich really grew on me in my last couple of days. The historic area is beautiful and great to see, but these other neighbourhoods felt more authentic and I was charmed by them. Zurich doesn't seem to me like an exciting city, but it is very attractive and so peaceful. Everything it quiet. There are no horns honking, no radios blaring, no loud conversations, no loud transportation. It's almost eerie, but kind of nice. There is a lot of bike riding, people having wine at cafes, and picnics. It all seems like an ideal city.  It is true that i prefer my cities dirty and chaotic, but this kind of grew on me. Or maybe it was just the fever.
I didn't really do anything, but I walked, through that area and the  into the old city. I thought about hitting a cigar lounge or going for lunch somewhere quaint, but I was feeling increasingly ill so i returned to the flat in the afternoon and spent the rest of the day and night in my room, listing to podcasts and trying to sleep through what seemed to be the flu. 

Being sick at the end of vacation, which always seems to happen to me, is inconvenient but in a way it is also kind of nice to be forced to spend a day or to actually relaxing, which I would not do on my travels unless forced. And the rest was just what I needed to feel better for the next day when I would go to Liechtenstein.